Sam Mendes delivers an immersive experience in 1917 that relies too heavily on its gimmick but features remarkable performances by its lead actors.
By Scottie Knollin
Inspired by the stories his own grandfather told about WWI, Sam Mendes crafted a based-on-a-true-story tale that follows two British soldiers as they embark on a dangerous journey in his new film, 1917. George MacKay stars as Lance Corporal Schofield, an easy-going soldier whose best mate, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), volunteers the pair for an unknown mission. Soon, the duo is thrust into high tension as they must race the clock to deliver a message that could save Blake's brother's life.
From the onset, the way Mendes pieces together this story is through a single-shot style of filmmaking. Except for one clear moment about halfway through, the camera never seems to break from following or leading the main characters. As an audience, we're treated to a real-life glimpse at life in the trenches, whisking around sandbagged corners and overhearing the anguish and ruggedness of the military men on the line. The intricately designed sets offer a stimied look at the claustrophobic and dirt-clad architecture that littered the battlefields at the time. And, as our protagonists learn, the differences between the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' are more than just politics. The enemy barracks show the size and force of the impending battle while also giving our heroes even more of which to be angry, jealous, or content.
We've seen single-shot films before. Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman picked up the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Cinematography (plus Directing and Original Screenplay) after its debut in 2013. Iñárritu's use of the camera movements played into its main character's psyche, displaying the ruthless chase of relevance in the eye of its beholder. The director repeated this storytelling tool by offering multiple single-shot moments in 2015's The Revenant. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining opted to follow little Danny on his tricycle in a harrowing scene that allowed for ultimate discomfort and scares. The urgency in how the camera follows the young boy proves that Kubrick is the king of divisive genius. Goodfellas takes us into the Copacabana with a vivid single-shot sequence. Atonement features the battle of Dunkirk in a moment that doesn't quite make sense in that film but still stands as one of its most memorable scenes. And, who could forget the several edge-of-your-seat single-shot sequences in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men? (Cuarón, like Iñárritu, is another director who's used the gimmick in many of his works, from Gravity to 2018's Roma.)
To pull it off, directors must rely on rehearsed segments of action that includes each component of the film, from lead actors, background actors, camera operators. You name it, and they have to be on board with every second of the production. Then, you have to mix in an editor with an eye for the detail and a special effects team to help erase the seams. The films that follow through each step successfully are the ones that keep you guessing and asking yourself, "How did they do that?" while never losing the investment in the story or the characters. In Mendes' case, the gimmick works most of the time. It's the few times the gimmick takes the spotlight where the film begins to suffer. The aforementioned cinematic achievements also capitalize on never revealing how they pulled off the gimmick. For 1917, even with the beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins, camera transitions behind walls or dark spaces wink too much at the audience of when a scene truly ended. The whole spectacle becomes more about following the filmmaking, instead of forgetting the filmmaking and being enveloped by the story.
To counter that, Mendes did secure an incredible duo of actors to lead the audience through the trenches of war. MacKay has been a budding young actor for a few years and 1917 gives him his mainstream opportunity to potentially step into stardom. It's Chapman, however, who offers the most sincere moments on the screen. His boyish demeanor is relatable and humbling. His kind ambition towards reaching his brother and his sensitivity towards his friendship with Schofield make him an easy character for which to cheer.
Mendes has also crafted a well-appointed script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Many may argue that its screenplay is lacking, due to limited amounts of dialogue. In fact, even silent films require a well-polished script. The action must be laid out appropriately. A story must still be told. With 1917, the little amounts of dialogue that pepper each scene are part of that well-choreographed makeup that is necessary to pull off a production of this caliber. And, it works with aplomb.
1917 is a good movie. It's exactly the type of movie that used to earn the major holiday release weekends. The war scenes are graphic but respectable. The actors are at the top of the game. The effects are just as big as you'd see in the summertime but subdued enough to elicit a realness that feels more elevated than a tentpole comic book film. It's in the film's magnitude where it suffers its few missteps by relying too much on its own gimmick to remember the message of which it's trying to share.